How to Reinvent the Workplace to Satisfy Baby Boomers

Boomers are the least engaged age group at work but would benefit from employer support.

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Growing numbers of older employees are delaying retirement. They may be motivated to build bigger retirement nest eggs. Often, they feel physically capable of continuing to work for a long time past traditional retirement age. And maintaining an active and purposeful lifestyle can be a strong influence – one that researchers are finding can stave off later-age maladies, including dementia.

 Job interview in office sitting at desk
Job interview in office sitting at desk

Despite all these positive drivers, Gallup's extensive research into workplace satisfaction found that baby boomers are the least engaged of any age group and also the most actively disengaged. The polling and research firm – which defined engagement as an employee being involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to work, and making positive contributions to their employer – found that nearly 1 in 4 baby boomers are actively disengaged.

[See: The 10 Best Places to Launch a Retirement Career.]

"Because this generation makes up such a large part of the working population, and many may be in the workforce long past the traditional retirement age, a targeted effort to raise these workers' engagement levels could have important ramifications for companies and the overall U.S. economy," Gallup stated in the "2013 State of the American Workplace Report."

Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing, says boomers feeling disengaged at work stems from the simple fact that they have been working for a long time. Length of service is a barometer for workplace engagement at all ages, Harter explains.

"But just because the general patterns in the U.S. show that baby boomers have the lowest level of engagement, it doesn't have to be that way," he says. "It isn't a fatalistic pattern."

However, there are tendencies that govern older employers. While not documented by Gallup in its research, Harter says, several factors help explain boomers' greater engagement challenges. Beyond longevity, older employees often have fuller lives outside of work than younger employees, and these can detract from their commitment to work. It can be harder for them to change jobs, he adds. Most importantly, it is easy for employers to overlook the needs that older employees have to continually receive training and job enrichment support. All employers can respond positively to such attention and efforts, regardless of their age.

[Read: 9 Employment Tips for Older Job Seekers.]

Gallup's research on engagement found more positive employee involvement at smaller companies. Within companies of all sizes, working in smaller teams also supports more involvement and a positive feeling of being recognized as an individual. Smaller teams also provide managers with more time to focus on individual employees and to recognize and support their personal strengths.

Harter speculates that the positive association from working in a small unit may even reflect evolutionary connections to humans' earlier existence as a family in a small tribe. "Really small companies are kind of like those small tribes," he says. "And we've existed for a lot longer as small tribes than we have inside large organizations."

Regardless of an employer's size, levels of workplace engagement depend on managers and their recognition and support of employees. "The best managers we've studied are very good at leveraging the differences of the people they hire," Harter says.

Employees who use their strengths at work every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job, according to Gallup. Managers may not know their employees' strengths, however, and even employees may not be fully aware of their own abilities. Gallup developed a four-question index to help managers and employees get in touch with how well the workplace environment identifies and cultivates employee strengths:

1. Every week, I set goals and expectations based on my strengths.

2. I can name the strengths of five people I work with.

3. In the last three months, my supervisor and I have had a meaningful discussion about my strengths.

4. My organization is committed to building the strengths of each associate.

Based on responses from these questions and Gallup's study of workplaces with high levels of employee engagement, research shows that companies with high engagement make more money than companies with low levels of engagement. Their employees are also healthier, which contributes to lower employer health care costs.

"Engaged employees have lower incidences of chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, diagnosed depression, and heart attacks than actively disengaged employees," the report stated. "They also eat healthier, exercise more frequently, and consume more fruits and vegetables than their not engaged or actively disengaged counterparts. Further, these engaged employees are more likely to be involved in employer-sponsored wellness programs."

[See: 10 Industries With the Best Retirement Benefits.]

Gallup identified and measured nine employer performance outcomes linked to engagement and looked at the levels of engagement for the top quarter of employers it studied and for the bottom 25 percent. Here are how the nine performance measures differed in the top group versus the bottom one:

  • 37 percent lower absenteeism
  • 25 percent lower turnover (in high-turnover organizations)
  • 65 percent lower turnover (in low-turnover organizations)
  • 28 percent less employee theft
  • 48 percent fewer safety incidents
  • 41 percent fewer patient safety incidents
  • 41 percent fewer quality incidents (defects)
  • 10 percent higher customer service or satisfaction
  • 21 percent higher productivity
  • 22 percent higher profitability